Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Robert E. Lee

Union or Secession
  • Robert E. Lee takes command of Virginia's forces
Robert E. Lee accepted command of Virginia's military and naval forces on April 23, 1861.
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Robert E. Lee takes command of Virginia's forces

Statue of Robert E. Lee by Rudulph Evans, 1931, State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.

A graduate of the United States Military Academy and a career army officer, Robert Edward Lee commanded the U.S. Marines who captured John Brown following his October 1859 raid on the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Following South Carolina's secession in December 1860, Lee dreaded the prospect of civil war. On April 18, 1861, he declined an offer to take command of the United States Army. Two days later, after learning the Virginia Convention had voted to secede on April 17, Lee reluctantly resigned from the army.

At the invitation of the governor and the Virginia Convention, Lee traveled to Richmond, where in the Capitol on April 23, 1861, he accepted a commission as major general and commander in chief of the military and naval forces of Virginia. Confirmed a brigadier general in the army of the Confederacy on May 14, 1861, Lee commanded in western Virginia during the remainder of the year and on the coast of South Carolina during the winter of 1861–1862. He took command of the Confederate army in Virginia on June 1, 1862, and immediately renamed it the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee led that army for the remainder of the war and became commander in chief of the Confederate army in February 1865 during the siege of Petersburg. He surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

The bronze statue of Lee by sculptor Rudulph Evans was placed on the spot in the hall of the House of Delegates where Lee accepted his commission. Evans based his 1931 statue of Robert E. Lee on an 1863 photograph of Lee in uniform. In fact, when Lee accepted command of the Virginia forces in April 1861, he wore civilian clothes.